Turning out the door, David stops to say hello to Khalid, the newspaper vendor who has a small kiosk next to the cafe. Khalid is dressed in a dark winter coat and sports a small woolen Yankees hat pulled down over his ears against the cold. David stops and laughs. “You look like Derek Jeter!” he says, but Khalid doesn’t get the reference. “I’m a real New Yorker today!” says Khalid, a wry smile lighting up his weathered face. Khalid has sold newspapers and magazines here for over 20 years, six days a week, morning through evening, just as his father had done for the previous 20 years before retiring back home in Homs. It’s a family business of sorts. “Kayf al-hal, ustaadh Daoud? How are you?” asks Khalid, in flawless Classical Arabic. David is always surprised by how even the seemingly simplest Syrians can not only speak good Classical Arabic, but also recite poetry – Arabic, of course, but sometimes in English as well. There was the hotel worker in Aleppo who regaled him with Hart Crane’s “To the Brooklyn Bridge” when he learned that David was from New York: “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest/The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him.” Of course he had read the poem in college but had not bothered to memorize it, yet here was some guy in a Syrian hotel reciting it to him and going on and on about Walt Whitman as if he were an Arab poet. Khalid too had often asked him about American literature, who was popular, what was the current trend, and so on. Not only had he been genuinely curious, but Khalid also has a lot of customers who read the literary Arabic journals, many of which also feature articles on international literary movements. He’s a long way from New York, that’s for sure. They talk for a few minutes about the weather, how his teaching job is going, how his family is doing – Khalid knows just about everything about David’s life by now – and what his plans for the weekend are. David asks about the newspapers, is told that they will not be coming until much later today, if at all, then buys one of the Arabic literary magazines to see what’s new and heads off. “See you later,” says Khalid as he retreats into the relative warmth of his kiosk.
David continues down the street toward Saba’ Baharat, passing along the way a number of appliance stores and shawarma shops. A group of youth eat their tasty little sandwiches on the corner, and as David walks past he recalls what he’d read or been told about the categories of people who in the olden days were not allowed to give testimony in court: thieves, dove trainers, and people who eat on the streets. He could understand thieves not being reliable witnesses, but dove trainers and people who ate on the streets? It seemed curious to him. He’d asked Samir, who said that because dove trainers hang out on rooftops, they can look into their neighbors’s courtyards and “yifdah harishhun” – scandalize their womenfolk. He wasn’t sure about street-food eaters… Perhaps it was yet another issue of social class, which in Damascus remains a very powerful presence. The sight of the shawarma-s makes David a little hungry, so he pops over to the small bakery at the intersection of Pakistan Street and a side alley. There’s always a line here, but it’s worth the wait for some of the city’s best manaqish za’tar and spinach fatayer. When it’s his turn David orders two spinach pies, which come nice and warm and wrapped in paper. He pays the 20 lira and begins walking toward the square, munching on the pies and looking over his shoulder for an approaching minibus, and feeling a little guilty that he now cannot testify in court…
He arrives at Sahat al-Saba’ Baharat, the “Square of the Seven Fountains.” It is a large square at the intersection of six main roads, with a large fountain in the center that was erected by the French and which had, not surprisingly, seven fountains. Today a larger number of jets spray water over a terraced fountain with the seven main fountains. At night it is often illuminated with multicolored lamps. Today some wag has dumped dye in the waters, making the fountain run a murky red. On one side stands the rather imperial looking Central Bank of Syria, set back behind a large fence. Behind it lies the beautiful Arsouzy Park, which David had discovered a few months back and seemed relatively unused, and hence a peaceful place to stroll on a warm day. On the other side are various residential and government buildings. He crosses May 29th Street toward Baghdad Street, the main avenue leading to the Old City. On the corner sits a government office building with a flotilla of cars and jeeps parked helter-skelter out front. Small speakers hang from the facade issuing crackling versions of nationalist jingles. Must be some sort of holiday. People come and go but no one seems to be listening to the songs. A group of the ever-present silkscreen portraits of the late president hang from a wire across the facade, billowing in the slight wind, and dampened by the snow that has now turned to a light rain. They remind him of those Andy Warhol portraits of multiple Liz Taylors or Marilyn Monroes. “Ten Hafezes.” He wants to collect some to take home one day but hasn’t figured out yet how to do it.
A sirvees careens around the corner and David flags it down. It comes to a stop and the door slides open. A young man bounds out as David approaches and, since it’s headed to Bab Touma, David hops in. The minibus holds about 15 people, but with his 6’4″ frame David finds it hard to squeeze in. Today the bus is crowded and he is obliged to fold down a supplementary seat by the door, which suits him fine as he does not have to squish himself into one of the cramped benches and it offers him a little leg room. The sirvees jumps back into traffic and they are on their way. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a 50 lira note, then passes it to a man in the front row, who then gives it to the driver. The fare is 10 lira. The driver places the note under a little rug draped across the dashboard then reaches into a small can in his lap and removes some coins, which he passes back to the man, who then gives the change to David. It’s an interesting system, money flowing up and down the sirvees and everyone cooperating.
The radio plays the latest song by the Lebanese pop star Julia Boutros, who croons about romance in a way that strikes David as formulaic. But it’s a catchy tune and helps mark time as the passengers zoom down the broad avenue. Baghdad Street runs past a number of middle class neighborhoods, government offices, a large Muslim cemetery, the famous French Laïque school, and numerous commerces. Off to the left is the neighborhood of al-‘Adweh, where Nidal recently got a flat after moving from the Mukhayyim or Palestinian camp, in reality a residential neighborhood, not a camp ground. They’d met by chance again outside the Arab Cultural Center there last week, where he’d gone to hear a poetry reading and she was returning from shopping to furnish her flat, which she was sharing with a friend. They’d spoken briefly then, and awkwardly, and promised to get in touch again soon. To say that the situation was awkward would be an understatement, as David thought of her almost non-stop and wondered what was going on. Did she think of him?
They’d first met up at Riwaq soon after his arrival. David was with Samir then, getting used to ‘araq and trying his best to follow the discussion about sculpture and national identity with the group of artists gathered at the table. Nidal had popped in to say hello to a fellow journalist friend on her way back from Beirut, where she had gone to submit some stories and to pick up some books. Samir pulled her over to the table to meet David. Nidal was tall and thin with long dark hair that framed an angular face, deep, almost black eyes, and thin lips that traced a wry smile. She wore a simple casual outfit – a dark green overcoat over black slacks, but David noticed her Nike running shoes, which were incongruous. None of the Syrian women he knew exercised and they all took great pains to dress to the nines, even when (or especially when) heading out to run errands. Jogging or even breaking a sweat seemed about the last thing a Syrian woman would want to do. Nidal, however, seemed fit and undisturbed by the dictates of fashion. She remained standing, somewhat aloof, but they spoke briefly – did he speak Arabic? What was he doing in Damascus? How long was he staying? She seemed surprised to find an American there, even one with Shami roots, and even a little suspicious. She left almost as quickly as she had come, in a whirlwind, and David was left wondering what storm had just passed over his heart. They’d run into each other there again a few weeks later, this time unaccompanied by Samir, and had sat together briefly until the friends she had come to meet arrived, and David had to go home to make a call to Marina, one that he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about making after all.
The last time they’d met was at Gallery al-Bustan, where they had both gone to see the opening of a retrospective of the works by the late Syrian master Fateh Moudarres. While admiring Moudaress’s rich canvases they’d spoken a bit about art in Syria, the difficulties that artists faced in an oppressive society – not only because of the government, which was bad enough, but by a society that tended to reject art, which was even worse. Her passion was literature and she made frequent trips to Beirut to get books, even though she had to borrow a Syrian friend’s ID to pass the border: as a Palestinian, even though born and raised in Damascus, she did not have travel documents or a passport and would otherwise be stuck in Syria. Fortunately she and her friend looked enough alike that she could pass as Soraya Hamdan and not Nidal Khatib. After the opening they’d walked out together toward the center of town. On an impulse he invited her to coffee at Firdaws, but she merely smiled and said that she couldn’t but hoped they’d see each other again. It was awkward: for him because of his on again off again relationship with Marina, and for her, since he was American and she had significant misgivings about US policies in the region. Add to that her delicate position in Syrian society, and it was hard for her. But behind her aloof shell was a warm spirit, and a certain undeniable chemistry linked them, as well as a love for literature and art. As the sirvees passes al-‘Adweh, he looks over his shoulder and wonders if she is at home, what she might be doing at that very moment.
The sirvees continues down Baghdad Street, through the al-Qusuur neighborhood, then skirts along the old city wall until it reaches Sahat Bab Touma. The former gate or bab to the Old City stands in the middle of the square, draped in festive lights. A Christmas tree stands in front, replete with lights and bulbs, for this is the entrance to a predominantly Christian quarter. A music store on the square plays Fairouz through a large speaker, her dulcet voice blanketing the chaotic square like the melting snow. David unfolds himself from the minibus and crosses the street to get a little juice from the stall located inside the old gate. Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is a delight on a summer’s day, but in winter the slightly acidic yet rich flavor is a rare treat. He finishes the juice then heads over to Jubran Sweets to get some hulwiyat for Samir and his wife. The sweets shop is just beyond the police station, where more Warholesque portraits hang, this time “Eight Bashars.” He orders a mix of mabroumeh, balloriyyeh, lisan ‘asfour, and baqlawa, which the server – a pretty young woman with those intensely dark eyes the Arabs call hawra’ – wraps delicately in a box.
He has about half an hour or so to kill, so decides to wander a bit in the neighborhood. The pavement is slick from the melting snow, the sidewalks are crowded with people heading home for lunch, so he ambles over to the bridge that spans the Barada river. Looking down into its litter-strewn bed he finds it hard to believe that Arab poets once apostrophized its beauty and clear waters. Even with the melting snow it is little more than a creek most of the time, the buildings on its edge practically falling into it. The city began renovation efforts years ago, with mixed results – a cement river bed to prevent flooding in the spring, and restoration or demolition of a handful of dilapidated homes, but the plastic bags and bottles remain. It could be worse, David thinks, but they should write elegies now, not encomiums. Damascus was known since antiquity for its jasmine-festooned gardens, sweet natural springs, and the Barada river with its seven branches. “Intaza’at al-sham,” a friend had remarked when they walked in the Old City during the fall; “The city has been ruined.”
David cannot help feeling a little nostalgic for a city and history he didn’t know except through his grandmother’s stories, passed on by his father. She had died when David was still young – from “heartbreak at the loss of Palestine,” everyone had said. He was only two years old at the time and didn’t understand what that meant. His father later told him that it was merely a stroke caused by too many sweets and hard work. She had not gone back to Syria after she had left with David’s great-grandparents in 1917 at the age of 12. The family home had long ago been lost, the small grocery store closed due to the war, and they had left to America carrying their hopes, dreams and recipes in their hearts. David looks down at his box of sweets and thinks of the grandmother he never really knew, and feels a little closer to her, even if he knows she probably would not recognize the Damascus of her youth in the modern city. The clock on the office building across the street says 1:45, so he crosses the bridge and heads toward Samir’s apartment. He looks forward to the visit.